This Bill Ain't Right · 12 April 2005

- Daily Tar Heel

This Bill Ain't Right
An "academic bill of rights" in the N.C. Senate would do far too much to infringe on the ability of UNC-system schools to police themselves.

Daily Tar Heel Editorial--04/01/05

A bill in the N.C. General Assembly threatens to take educators' ability to decide the content of their courses and to put it in the hands of bureaucrats.

State Sens. Andrew Brock, R-Davie; Robert Pittenger, R-Mecklenburg; and Hugh Webster, R-Alamance, are sponsoring a bill that would require each constituent institution of the UNC system to adopt an "academic bill of rights" to ensure that all viewpoints are represented fairly.

But the legislation would serve to undermine the very diversity and freedom it purports to encourage.

The bill's proponents are tightening their grip on the classroom and suggesting that North Carolina's public university professors must teach certain points of view or doctrines that otherwise might not be included in their curricula.

David Horowitz, a conservative columnist and author of his own "Academic Bill of Rights," explains that its virtues will allow an institution to "recognize scholarship rather than ideology as an appropriate academic enterprise."

But toying with and examining different ideologies is essential to scholarship. Many viewpoints emerge in the scheme of an academic curriculum, and it is natural for one viewpoint to take precedence over another at times.

A professor's decision to present controversial points of view forces students to understand an expert's opinion and to form their own responses to it.

Ideally, students at the university level should be able to separate materials that are presented in class from absolute truth.

And challenging students' views is vital to their development as critical thinkers. It's much more important than providing equal exposure to familiar and opposing views.

In some courses, being able to defend a particular viewpoint is the entire purpose. Communications, philosophy and anthropology are just a few of the subjects that revolve around developing arguments that are often one-sided.

For example, in the anthropological study of science, accepting the idea that society influences scientific research can be a key element in understanding the entire field. Without at least recognizing and understanding that viewpoint, one couldn't move on to more advanced topics.

The academic bill of rights seeks to create an artificial balance that cannot be obtained. What would happen if such a bill goes into law and violations are claimed?

And if a professor's material is deemed inappropriate, should legislators really be the ones to provide the equalizing viewpoints for that class?

It's outrageous that state senators would try to penalize honest professors and other instructors for allowing undiluted thought and opinion to pervade their classrooms.

Who is to be the judge of such violations? The bill suggests that professors avoid "persistently introducing controversial matter into the classroom or coursework that has no relation to their subject of study and that serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose."

But the thick gray area of "pedagogical purpose" doesn't give us any practical guidelines. Neither does the rest of the bill's vague language.

Such a "bill of rights" would only serve to chill important discourse in favor of stale "balance."

In higher-level courses, advanced discussion of complex topics cannot be done without the inherent scholarly opinion of a professor. Such a learning environment can easily gravitate toward one opinion's taking precedence over another.

The legislation would do nothing but promote a passive learning environment in which teachers are afraid of including all the material they have in mind - and some of that material could be absolutely vital to the learning process.

This academic bill of rights is the wrong answer.